Gates Memoir Vindicates Obama’s Afghan Good Enough Policy
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Gates Memoir Vindicates Obama’s Afghan Good Enough Policy


Washington is once again captivated by a memoir from a former Obama administration official.

The culprit this time is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (full disclosure: there are few individuals I have more respect for than Secretary Gates). Although Gates’ second memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, hasn’t actually been published yet, the disclosures from the Washington Post and New York Times’ reviews of the book—as well as a short excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal—have been enough to dominate Beltway attention this week.

As my colleague Ankit noted earlier this week, the book reviews have said that Gates makes scathing criticisms of President Obama and especially Vice President Joseph Biden and White House staff. Although it appears from the reviews that much of the book will be about an over-controlling White House and civilian-military tensions, much attention has focused on Gates’ criticisms of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan.

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Although apparently concluding near the end that he believed Obama had made the right decisions on Afghanistan, Gates also reportedly says that in March 2011 he concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” In the WSJ excerpt, Gates writes that Obama’s “fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and Defense, and the realities on the ground.”

He later adds:

“I witnessed a good deal of wishful thinking in the Obama administration about how much improvement we might see with enough dialogue with Pakistan and enough civilian assistance to the Afghan government and people. When real improvements in those areas failed to materialize, too many people—especially in the White House—concluded that the president’s entire strategy, including the military component, was a failure and became eager to reverse course.”

There are obviously some moral conundrums involved when a commander-in-chief no longer believes in a strategy while soldiers are still in harm’s way, yet does little to change the strategy. Still, anyone who has even marginally followed the evolution of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy should not be surprised by Gates’ accusations. Indeed, when I read Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War after it first came out, I remember thinking that Obama’s comments during the 2009 policy review suggested he grasped the fundamental contradictions in the policy his advisers were advocating and that he ultimately came to largely adopt. Even more notable, David Sanger has reported that by the end of 2010 a close-knit group of Obama staffers began conducting a quiet policy review that was informally named “Afghan Good Enough.”

Furthermore, if Obama didn’t conclude his Afghan policy had failed until March 2011, the severity of the moral question is lessened by the fact that Obama did in fact announce the beginning of the Afghanistan drawdown in June 2011. To be sure, one might have expected him to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal if he had lost faith in the strategy, but an undertaking the size of the U.S. Afghan withdrawal takes time, and ordering a faster one might have divided national leaders intensely over the war effort. Indeed, a CNN report on Obama’s speech announcing the beginning of the drawdown states, “Initial reaction [to the speech] was varied… congressional leaders were divided between those who wanted a faster withdrawal and others calling for caution in leaving Afghanistan.”  Being somewhere in the middle of what national lawmakers believe should be done doesn’t seem hugely scandalous.

In fact, from what we can glean from the few book reviews and excerpt available, Gates’ assessment suggests Obama did a fairly decent job of handling Afghanistan. To be sure, the initial decision(s) in 2009 to drastically surge troops in Afghanistan, while announcing a withdrawal date two years in advance, seems to have been a poor one. Afghanistan doesn’t appear any more likely to avoid long-term instability now than it did when the troop surge(s) were ordered. Similarly, the policy-making process surrounding Afghanistan was remarkably inept (particularly throughout all of 2009 but to a lesser extent in the years after as well).

But once he ordered the final surge in December 2009, Obama’s handling of Afghanistan seems to have improved markedly. First, Obama used the cover of the surge to drastically ramp up drone strikes on al-Qaeda central in Pakistan. Thus, even though the situation failed to improve much in most of Afghanistan, the U.S. was able to effectively decimate al-Qaeda central, which was the reason it went into the country in 2001 to begin with. Not only was Osama bin Laden eliminated, but he was replaced by Anwar al-Zawahiri who has predictably continued his lifelong slump at being a leader. Currently, al-Zawahiri is being publicly rebuked by the leaders of some of the so-called al-Qaeda affiliates, making him even more irrelevant than would otherwise be the case.

Secondly, according to Gates, Obama recognized that the key parts of the strategy were not working and would not work, and resisted the urge to double down. As quoted above, Gates writes that Obama and some White House staffers lost confidence in the strategy after they realized Pakistan would never be a productive force in Afghanistan and the Hamid Karzai government would continue to be as immune to competence or integrity as it had been during the first decade of the war.

Gates takes issue with the White House supposedly giving up hope on the military component of the strategy because of these political issues. Although the quote doesn’t provide specific details on how the White House gave up on the military component, they were right to conclude that the entire strategy was hopeless. The U.S. was (sort of) pursuing a counterinsurgency military strategy in Afghanistan. A prerequisite for success with a COIN strategy is having local authorities who can eventually assume governing and security responsibilities. If the White House was correct in concluding these authorities would not be forthcoming, then no amount of military successes from coalition troops would enable the U.S. to be successful in Afghanistan.

At this point in time, the administration could either try to formulate another strategy, or begin withdrawing. One could envision some alternative strategies that might have yielded more success, such as beginning to establish local or regional forces independent of Kabul over Karzai’s objections. Indeed, one can certainly fault the Bush and Obama administrations for not switching to a more decentralized focus far earlier in the war. Yet, some of the worst foreign policy blunders committed by the U.S. and other nations have resulted in large part from leaders refusing to admit defeat. This has been particularly true for past foreign powers who have ventured into Afghanistan.

By the summer of 2011, domestic support for the war was continuing to plummet, Al-Qaeda central in Pakistan was being pulverized and its affiliates elsewhere were growing relatively stronger. In other words, it was clear that creating a well-functioning state in Afghanistan was no longer as central to preventing foreign terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland as it had once seemed. Putting aside myriad other domestic and foreign policy issues that were being under resourced, even the limited counterterrorism resources the U.S. has could be used more effectively elsewhere.

In short, while Obama was wrong to initiate a surge, he should be lauded for recognizing that the objectives he initially sought were no longer necessary or achievable at a reasonable cost. History is littered with examples of U.S. and other world leaders failing to abandon previously established goals despite mounting failures. The fact that Gates ultimately concludes that Obama had made the right decisions in Afghanistan suggests that he may agree with this assessment, even if Gates is rightly angry at how poorly the policymaking process was conducted.

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